When she died in a Florida welfare home in 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave, Zora Neale Hurston already had been largely forgotten. Once a leading figure of the literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, a friend of such prominent intellectuals as Langston Hughes and W. E. B. DuBois, she had vanished from the spotlight. Her books were out of print, and publishers had rejected her last four manuscripts. Not until the 1970s, when author Alice Walker led a revival of interest in her work, did the public rediscover Hurston. Today, she is widely revered, quoted in presidential speeches, studied at scholarly conferences, and even was featured in a Google Doodle in 2014. Her novels, particularly Their Eyes Were Watching God, originally published in 1937, sell hundreds of thousands of copies every year.
It’s easy to understand her appeal. With her brilliant ear for dialogue—certainly the finest writer of idiomatic American English in the generation after Mark Twain—and her lush and witty prose style, Hurston polished virtually every sentence in her books to a shine that often verges on poetry. But more than this, her work expressed a steadfast individualism that sets it apart from the collectivist—even communist—writings of her Harlem Renaissance colleagues.
They, in fact, were Hurston’s harshest critics. They condemned her for not writing “protest literature”—that is, for not centering her stories on the evils of racism and the alleged wrongs of capitalism. And it is true that she refused to write propaganda (a word other Harlem Renaissance authors actually embraced). Although hardly silent on racial and political controversies, Hurston did not want to confine herself to transitory political subjects. She was tired, she told a friend, of being asked, “Why don’t I put something about lynchings in my books? As if all the world did not know about Negroes being lynched!”1 She chose to focus instead on broader, more universal themes: on ideas about independence and beauty, and to give voice to her own joyful sense of life—to “sing a song to the morning,” as she put it.2 That is what makes her writing genuine and lasting literature. . . . Often scorned and rejected in her own day, Zora Neale Hurston was a pioneering writer who looked beyond the controversies of her time and sought to articulate a vision free of bitterness or pettiness and full of grace and beauty. Click To Tweet